Fulk Nerra, the Repentant and Sadictic Pilgrim

To understand the relationship of the Medieval Christianity and the Holy Land, you must try to place yourself in their mindset. For them, Pilgrimage to the Holy Land would clean your soul, you would be purified. This is the story of a bad man with the name of Count Fulk Nerra, who was convinced that he needed to purify himself with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like him, there were thousands of Christians who thought the same in those times.

That believe brought the crusaders and the crusades to the Holy Land and caused hundreds of thousands of people to die, and changed the course of history of course.

Around 1100 a monk from Anjou sat down and wrote a history of the Counts of Anjou and wrote about Fulk Nerra.

Fulk Nerra – the Butcher of Anjou lived here in France
Fulk Nerra – the Butcher of Anjou lived here in France

In the year 1000, the county of Anjou (in west-central France) was ruled by Fulk Nerra (987–1040), a brutal and aggressive and greedy warlord. Fulk spent most of his fifty-three years in power locked in near constant struggle: fighting on every front to retain control of his unruly county; scheming to preserve his independence from the feeble French monarchy; and preying upon his neighbors in search of land and plunder. He was a man accustomed to violence, both on and off the battlefield–capable of burning his wife at the stake for adultery and of orchestrating the ruthless murder of a royal courtier.

Foulque-Nerra Assailed by the Phantoms of His Victims
Foulque-Nerra Assailed by the Phantoms of His Victims

But for all the blood on his hands, Fulk was also a committed Christian–one who recognized that his brutish ways were, by the tenets of his faith, inherently sinful, and thus might lead to his eternal damnation. The count himself admitted in a letter that he had ‘caused a great deal of bloodshed in various battles’ and was therefore ‘terrified by the fear of Hell’.

Fulk Nerra
Fulk Nerra

Fulk went on pilgrimage, initially to Rome, where he received the Pope’s blessings and a papal letter, which he was to take to the Emperor in Constantinople. When he got to Constantinople he ran into Robert Duke of Normandy, who was also on his way to Jerusalem. Robert was making the long and dangerous journey in penance for having poisoned his brother seven years earlier in order to gain the dukedom for himself. He had by this time already fathered William, who would become the Conqueror of England.

After presenting the papal letter to the Emperor, the pair were introduced to some men from Antioch who happened to be in Constantinople. They agreed to guide Fulk and Robert through the lands of the Saracens (Muslims during the Middle Ages). Robert died on the journey, but Fulk arrived safely at the gates of Jerusalem. However, he was not permitted to enter the city without paying a hefty fee. Having done this, and payed for all the other Christian pilgrims hanging about the gate in the same situation, he swiftly made his way to the cloisters of the holy tombs.
But he was barred entry to them as well. The Saracens knew his reputation for quick temper and goaded him. They told him that if he wished to enter he would have to piss on the tomb he wished to see and on the cross. He wasn’t happy about it, but he agreed to the conditions. Fulk may have been quick tempered, but he was also clever. He had a ram’s bladder brought to him, cleaned it, filled it with fine wine and hung it between his thighs. Approaching the Holy Sepulchre barefoot, he allowed the wine to flow over the tomb. He and his companions were allowed to enter the tomb and pray. They were overcome to the point of tears.

After a time, Fulk sensed the divine power. He realized the wine had softened the hard stone of the tomb. Reaching forward as if to kiss the sepulchre he bit a piece off and concealed it in his mouth. The guards did not notice he had stolen a piece of the tomb and he was able to smuggle the holy relic back to Loches. He was also given a piece of the True Cross by the Syrian Christian guardians of the tomb, after he distributed generous gifts to the poor. Once back in France he had a church built at Beaulieu lès Loches and there installed the relic of the Holy Sepulchre and appointed an abbott (clergyman). His piece of the True Cross and a piece of the thong used to bind Christ’s hands that he had also acquired were installed in a church in Amboise.

Jerusalem, as depicted on a shield held by a sadly mutilated angel in the church at Beaulieu
Jerusalem, as depicted on a shield held by a sadly mutilated angel in the church at Beaulieu

Although the monk writing the history doesn’t specify when these events took place, the pilgrimage when he was accompanied by Robert of Normandy was Fulk’s third pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in 1035. Robert, who was known as Robert le Diable, had indeed gained the dukedom on the sudden and unexpected of his brother Richard, but there is no real evidence that Robert had a hand in his death.

Fulk Nerra – the Butcher of Anjou
Fulk Nerra – the Butcher of Anjou

The incident where Fulk supposedly acquired a piece of the Holy Sepulchre was during his second pilgrimage, in 1008. The records show that he certainly had a relic which he believed to be from the True Cross, and he had probably acquired it from a relic dealer in Rome.

In the hope of purifying his soul, he made totally four pilgrimages to Jerusalem. On the third of these journeys, now an old man, Fulk was said to have been led naked to the Holy Sepulchre–the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection–with a leash around his neck, being beaten by his servant while he begged Christ for forgiveness.

Fulk himself died while returning from his fourth pilgrimage in 1038. On the third and fourth pilgrimages Fulk appointed himself as protector of pilgrims to the Holy Land, traveling with troops he employed to guard all pilgrims against robbery, enslavement and murder.

Fulk led 'naked' in the church of the Holy Sepulchre
Fulk led ‘naked’ in the church of the Holy Sepulchre

What drove Fulk Nerra to make such drastic gestures of repentance, and why was his story filled with such feral turmoil? Even people in the eleventh century were shocked by the count’s unbridled sadism and outlandish acts of devotion, so his career evidently was an extreme example of medieval life. But his experiences and mindset were reflective of the forces that shaped the Middle Ages and gave birth to the crusades. And it would be people like Fulk–including many of his own descendants–who stood in the front line of these holy wars.

He is buried in the Abbey Church La Sainte Trinité in Beaulieu lès Loches

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